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Group home workers strike, as union leaders are ‘not encouraged’ by state budget talks

Members of SEIU 1199NE march in front of Oak Hill in Hartford as they launch an indefinite strike to demand wage increases. Sandra Allen, center, has been in the industry for about ten years. She emphasized the demands of the job and the many responsibilities caregiving entails.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Members of SEIU 1199NE march in front of Oak Hill in Hartford as they launch an indefinite strike to demand wage increases. Sandra Allen, center, has been in the industry for about ten years. She emphasized the demands of the job and the many responsibilities caregiving entails.

More than 1,700 caregivers for people with developmental disabilities made good on their promise to strike Wednesday, forming picket lines at group homes and day program facilities around the state.

The SEIU 1199 New England workers are demanding a path to $25 per hour wages, up from current starting hourly wages of $17.25.

Around 9:00 a.m. at the Oak Hill campus in Hartford, which houses both residential and day programs, about 100 striking workers banged drums, waved flags and chanted union slogans.

Kelly Bucko, who works roughly 80 hours a week at an Oak Hill group home in Lebanon, Connecticut, said she has deep affection for the residents in her care.

“We're the ones that talk them through their bipolar episodes. We're the ones that celebrate their birthdays with them. They don't all have family that care about them. We are their family,” Bucko said. “And we love them, but we also deserve to be able to be paid equitably, to be able to support ourselves and do our jobs to the best of our abilities and not be so exhausted.”

“But it’s a heartbreak, because we go home and try to pay bills, and let’s rob Peter to pay Paul: Today I can pay electricity, tomorrow I’m going to have to try to pay my rent,” Bucko said.

Union president Rob Baril said Tuesday there was an “enormous gulf” between the $200 million 1199 is asking to be included in the state’s biennial budget and the sums being proposed by Gov. Ned Lamont, House Speaker Matt Ritter, and Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, all Democrats, in the budgets they’re negotiating.

SEIU 1199NE President Rob Baril gathers in the union members on the Oak Hill picket line early Wednesday morning and reinforces the importance of discipline during an indefinite strike. "Our job is to be here, at this line, at 6am," he said.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
SEIU 1199NE President Rob Baril gathers in the union members on the Oak Hill picket line early Wednesday morning and reinforces the importance of discipline during an indefinite strike. "Our job is to be here, at this line, at 6am," he said.

On Wednesday, Ritter said Baril’s view was accurate.

“We are not able to get to $200 million,” Ritter told reporters at a Capitol press conference.

Workers from nine picket sites across Connecticut were converging on the Capitol grounds at the time Ritter spoke. Informed of Ritter’s remarks by a reporter, Baril scoffed.

“They’ve got to get us something and they haven’t gotten us [expletive],” Baril said, marching with his union’s members outside the state Legislative Office Building. “So there’s nothing to talk about.”

Later Wednesday afternoon, at the union’s request, Ritter did invite Baril and several union members into his office for a closed-door meeting. Baril left the speaker’s office visibly upset. SEIU 1199 Vice President Stephanie Deceus, also in the room for the meeting, said the union was “not encouraged” by the content and tenor of the conversation and that Ritter signaled it was Gov. Lamont holding up the requested funding.

“It sounds like the governor is not there yet, to recognize the workers,” Deceus said. “We are hopeful that [Ritter] will listen to us now and provide the leadership the state needs to push the governor to recognize us, to see us, to hear us. We are majority Black, brown, and white working class. We are majority women. Take care of us.”

As of next month Janet Johnson will have worked in this industry for 38 years with minimal increases in pay from the starting pay of $17 an hour. "After a lifetime of doing this I should be making more than $23 an hour."
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
As of next month Janet Johnson will have worked in this industry for 38 years with minimal increases in pay from the starting pay of $17 an hour. "After a lifetime of doing this I should be making more than $23 an hour."

Ritter’s office declined to comment about the contents of the meeting. Lamont’s office did not return multiple requests for comment about the strike.

Deceus said that because the strike was political in nature, striking workers at Hartford facilities should picket each day moving forward at the Capitol instead of their workplaces.

“The strike continues and the strike is going to continue tomorrow, it is going to continue the day after, it's going to continue every single day until the state, until the governor, finally recognizes that these workers are important,” Deceus said. “And let's show them how much we think they are important by putting some funding for them.”

Chris Polansky joined Connecticut Public in March 2023 as a general assignment and breaking news reporter based in Hartford. Previously, he’s worked at Utah Public Radio in Logan, Utah, as a general assignment reporter; Lehigh Valley Public Media in Bethlehem, Pa., as an anchor and producer for All Things Considered; and at Public Radio Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla., where he both reported and hosted Morning Edition.